The Corner

Law & the Courts

FDR’s Court-Packing Scheme Reconsidered

The Democrats want to increase the size of the Supreme Court to 13 justices, adding new personnel who will undoubtedly be chosen for their fidelity not to the Constitution but to the goals of statism.

As almost everyone knows, this has happened before. FDR threatened to pack the Court following his landslide reelection in 1936, but he ran into so much opposition in his own party that the plan fizzled. But that doesn’t mean it failed, as Charles Lipson argues in this Discourse article. 

As he correctly notes, when the Court reconvened in 1937, Chief Justice Hughes began to side with the Court’s leftists, thus giving FDR constitutional approval for a host of policies he wanted — first and foremost the National Labor Relations Act, a law that was just as obviously unconstitutional as many other New Deal laws the Court had struck down in 1935 and 1936.

Ironically, the economy had been slowly strengthening in 1936, but went into a tailspin in 1937, in large measure because of the wave of strikes that followed the upholding of the NLRA.

Richard Epstein detailed the damage wrought by the Court’s switch from constitutionalism to progressivism in his law-review article “The Mistakes of 1937.”

Back then, the big goal of the Left was to demolish the Constitution’s restraints on federal spending and regulatory power. Those have never been rebuilt, so what is the goal now?

I think that the main target is the First Amendment. There are plenty of leftist legal scholars who contend that free speech is an outmoded concept; that we need government control over “hate speech” and “misinformation.” We know just what sort of speech will be declared illegal — speech that undermines support for the omnipotent government envisioned by Biden & Company.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.


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